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ESTES-EL v. NEW YORK

December 15, 1982

MELVIN ESTES-EL, Plaintiff,
v.
THE STATE OF NEW YORK, THE NEW YORK STATE THRUWAY AUTHORITY, THE NEW YORK STATE CONSERVATION DEPARTMENT, THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION, COUNTY OF WESTCHESTER, VALHALLA, NEW YORK AND THEIR SERVANTS AND AGENTS: SOMERS COURT JUSTICE JUDGE ARTHUR R. COVY, CONSERVATION OFFICER STEPHEN COOK, SHIELD NUMBER 163; AND STATE POLICE OFFICER KENNETH W. CAUFIELD, JR., SHIELD NUMBER 3169--TROUP K AND JOE PANZARINO, SOMERS TEXACO, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LASKER

LASKER, D.J.

 Plaintiff, Melvin Estes-El, was fishing in the Croton Reservoir in Westchester County, New York, on May 10, 1982 when he was arrested for fishing without a license. This complaint alleges that the defendants arrested him without probable cause, without authority, and with excessive force; kept him shackled to a wall without cause; failed to inform him of the charge against him; failed to give him the Miranda warnings; strip-searched him; argued for bail in an excessive amount; removed his vehicle and held it overnight without authorization; forcibly removed his headgear; and held him up to public ridicule, both in the stationhouse during the arrest and in the courtroom in subsequent court proceedings. Plaintiff alleges that these actions of Environmental Conservation Officer (ECO) Cook and State Police Officer (Police Officer) Caufield amount to deprivations, under color of law, of rights secured by the United States Constitution in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff also alleges that the officers conspired to deny him the equal protection of the laws, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985, by continuing to prosecute him without cause because he is black. Plaintiff seeks $250,000 for the damages he has suffered.

 Defendants deny many of plaintiff's allegations and invoke the good faith immunity of those government employees exercising discretionary functions. In addition, the defendants have filed counterclaims against plaintiff for malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and injury to reputation. Plaintiff answered the counterclaims with a general denial and added counterclaims of his own for intentional infliction of emotional distress, injury to reputation, and malicious prosecution.

 Defendants Cook and Caufield now move for summary judgment against plaintiff and for dismissal of plaintiff's counterclaims on the grounds that there is no genuine issue of material fact to be tried and that defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Defendants request that their counterclaims be preserved.

 I.

 Plaintiff's primary contention is that the defendants do not have authority under the Environmental Conservation Law (ECL) of the State of New York to arrest individuals for fishing without a license. Under N.Y. ECL § 11.0705 (McKinney 1973) failure of a licensee to have his license in his possession while fishing is presumptive evidence that he is taking fish without a license in violation of N.Y. ECL § 11.0703(6)(e). N.Y. ECL § 71.0919(1)(a) provides that violations specified in N.Y. ECL § 71.0921 are misdemeanors; N.Y. ECL § 71.0919(1)(b) provides that all other violations are "infractions." The parties agree that fishing without a license is an "infraction" and not a "misdemeanor." The parties also agree that plaintiff was fishing without having his license in his possession on May 10, 1982. The disagreement between the parties concerns whether or not the ECL gives officers the power to arrest those committing infractions in their presence.

 N.Y. ECL § 71.0525(1) specified that ECO's may arrest "without warrant any person committing in their presence a misdemeanor under this chapter . . . ." Plaintiff characterizes this grant of power as an exclusive grant, by implication requiring a warrant before an arrest can be made for an infraction. Defendants, on the other hand, point out that N.Y. ECL § 71.0905(1) makes it clear that no provision of the ECL "shall be construed as amending, repealing, superseding, or limiting any provision of the Penal Law, Criminal Procedure Law or other law . . . ." Defendants argue that N.Y. CPL § 1.20(34)(j)(McKinney 1981) gives to the ECO the status of a police officer. Police officers, pursuant to N.Y. CPL § 140.10(1)(a), may arrest a person for "any offense when he has reasonable cause to believe that such person has committed such offense in his presence." N.Y. Penal Law § 10.00(1) defines an offense as "conduct for which a sentence to a term of imprisonment or to a fine is provided by any law of this state . . . ." Since N.Y. ECL § 71.0923 permits fines for infractions, these sections can be read to confer upon ECOs the power to arrest, without warrant, anyone committing an infraction in their presence. This debate between the parties demonstrates an arguable ambiguity in the law of the State of New York.

 The Supreme Court's recent decision in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 102 S. Ct. 2727, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396 (1982), makes it unnecessary to resolve the ambiguity, if any, at this time. In Harrow, which concerned a challenge to the Department of the Air Force's decision to discharge plaintiff, the Court held "that government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Id. at 2738. The New York ECL does not "clearly establish" that ECOs are without the power to arrest those committing infractions in their presence without a warrant. The defendants could not know, indeed do not know, how the courts of New York will interpret their powers under the ECL of New York. The officers' belief that those actions were authorized is at least, in good faith, arguably valid. Under these circumstances, and following the holding in Harrow, defendants cannot, as a matter of law, be held liable for arresting plaintiff because this arrest was not clearly outside of the powers granted to them by the laws of the State of New York.

 II.

 Plaintiff's remaining claims seek damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged deprivations of rights, secured by the Constitution, during his arrest. These claims, in the order in which they will be discussed, are:

 1) deprivation of the Sixth Amendment right to be informed of the charges against him;

 2) deprivation of the Eighth Amendment right to be free from imposition of excessive bail;

 3) deprivation of the Fifth Amendment right to be free from governmental seizure of private property ...


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